Strengthening indigenous voice and action in IUCN and conservation

CEESP News - By Kaia Boe, with input from IUCN IPO Members

A landmark decision for indigenous peoples and conservation was adopted by the Members Assembly at the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) World Conservation Congress in 2016*. The IUCN Members voted to create a new separate category of membership for Indigenous Peoples’ Organisations, strengthening  the recognition of their rights, participation, voice and role in IUCN.

This was the first time IUCN reformed its membership structure, doing so specifically to meet the demands of indigenous peoples’ organisations. This decision marks a turning point for their full participation in IUCN’s work and future directions.

Drafting of the first iucn ipo strategy March 2018

As noted in a newly released report by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues’ Secretariat, Study to examine conservation and indigenous peoples’ human rights, recent decades have seen notable advances in recognising and promoting indigenous rights within conservation. This includes acknowledging the vital role indigenous peoples play in conserving lands, seas and resources - and realising conservation goals. However, despite these significant advances by States as primary duty bearers - and conservation and other non-State actors as norm setters, violations of indigenous rights still occur in the name of conservation.

IUCN works to secure social inclusion, equity and human rights in conservation and. a number of conservation organisations now have distinct programmes or strategies to integrate indigenous agenda into their programmes of work – including members of the Conservation Initiative on Human Rights (CIHR).  While the decision to create a distinct category for IPOs within IUCN’s membership was historic in IUCN and for conservation and reaffirmed IUCN’s commitment to advancing indigenous rights, a vital element of this progress had been missing: the direct voice and self-determination of indigenous peoples in identifying priorities, entry points and how they themselves wish to engage and advance their rights and concerns in conservation globally.

Drafting of the first IUCN IPO Strategy 1 MArch 2018 Photo: Kevin Chang

In March 2018, a gathering of IUCN Member Indigenous Peoples’ Organisations (IPOs) in San Jose, Costa Rica, marked a significant step forward in addressing indigenous peoples’ rights, concerns and issues in conservation. At this first gathering of IUCN IPOs since the creation of their own category of membership, an indigenous-led strategy was collaboratively drafted – outlining their priority actions and practical steps for strengthening their rights, participation and engagement in conservation.

The IUCN gathering was the first-ever platform of its kind, convening IUCN IPOs Members from across the globe (currently numbering seventeen from Australia, Africa, Asia, South America, North America and Europe) to jointly lead a strategy development process supported by IUCN’s Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP), as well as the IUCN Secretariat, namely its Global Programme on Governance and Rights. Indigenous perspectives on key challenges to achieving full and effective recognition of their individual and collective rights were shared at the gathering. Although each indigenous organisation faces different political and ecological challenges, as a distinct and mobilised constituency of IUCN, they determined joint priorities and how to engage with each other and within IUCN moving forward, particularly around IUCN’s convening power, knowledge generation, standard setting and policy engagement in regard to indigenous issues.  The strategy outlines actions to:

  • Increase indigenous participation in IUCN’s governance;
  • Participate in IUCN’s global policy engagement processes;
  • Promote the recognition of rights in relation to lands and territories, natural and cultural resources;
  • Promote the creation of a system of indigenous protected areas that strengthens the use, management and conservation of natural resources by indigenous peoples;
  • Address issues related to cultural heritage;
  • Address the rights and participation of indigenous women; and
  • Support indigenous organisation institutional strengthening.

As with any strategy, the challenge lies in its full implementation. But the energy and leadership of IUCN IPOs is strong and full of momentum. With this strategy in place, IPOs, with the support of the IUCN Secretariat and Commissions will have a clear roadmap for targeted fundraising, enhancing partnerships and for clarifying the value of IUCN membership to other IPOs. 

The seventeen current IUCN IPOs are in direct contact, continuing their discussions and interactions, and building a strong community through a listserv, WhatsApp, and -soon - the IUCN Union Portal.

IUCN endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2008 and, with IPO Members, will continue to ensure that its articles are implemented within its Secretariat and Commissions - and will assist its Members in doing so. IUCN’s delegation to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) seventeenth session will include a representative from IUCN IPOs and this will be an opportune time to share the progress on indigenous issues in IUCN and introduce the IUCN IPO strategy to the UNPFII and other IPOs.

The previously mentioned UNPFII Secretariat study outlines several ways forward for advancing an indigenous agenda in conservation, including through the organisation of a summit prior to the next IUCN World Conservation Congress in 2020 and the development and strengthening of standards and redress mechanisms. These closely align with the IUCN IPO Strategy and offer an opportunity to identify areas for collaboration between IUCN members, other conservation organizations, IUCN and non-IUCN IPOs, and the UNPFII.  

IUCN looks forward to welcoming other indigenous peoples’ organisations to join its membership and in enriching and furthering this progress.

Drafting of the first IUCN IPO Strategy - March 2018 Photo: Kevin Chang

If you would like more information about joining IUCN as an IPO, please contact Kaia Boe at

*IUCN is a membership Union uniquely composed of more than 1,300 government and civil society organisations. Every four years, the members take part in a democratic process, voting on Resolutions which drive the global conservation agenda.

Go to top